Black and multiethnic faith communities dispel COVID myths, connect at-risk communities with vaccines

Faith leaders and religious nonprofits in Pittsburgh are helping underserved Black communities to access COVID-19 vaccines — and to trust the science behind them. Here’s how.

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Rev. Curtis stands against a wall outside Mount Ararat Baptist Church

Rev. Dr. William Curtis stands outside of Mount Ararat Baptist Church. (Photo by Jay Manning/PublicSource)

For Rev. Dr. William Curtis, senior pastor at Mount Ararat Baptist Church, getting at-risk communities of color vaccinated isn’t secondary to the church’s work. It’s essential.

“This is ‘church.’ This is what you do. This is the service element of church: ‘Am I my brother’s and sister’s keeper?’” Curtis said.

The need is urgent. Black residents make up a disproportionate number of COVID hospitalizations in Allegheny County and COVID-related deaths in Pennsylvania, especially for people ages 35 to 65

But access is a problem. The vaccine rollout favors populations who have reliable internet, some tech know-how and time to spend searching for appointments. It also favors people with pharmacies in their neighborhoods and transportation to vaccine sites.

Vaccine reluctance is another major barrier. Father Paul Abernathy, chief executive officer of the Neighborhood Resilience Project and pastor of St. Moses the Black Orthodox Church in the Hill District, identified three ways the distrust manifests. 

There’s a wariness of government systems that have failed and marginalized Black communities; distrust of medical institutions, rooted in a history of exploitation; and suspicion of corporations, who many fear are pushing a vaccine to help “the rich get richer.” 

“These are overarching cultural attitudes that are greatly justifiable,” Abernathy said.

Connecting at-risk communities with vaccines is a two-part challenge. It demands a simultaneous effort to build confidence in vaccines and break down access barriers.

Father Paul Abernathy stands outside the Neighborhood Resilience Project building wearing a face mask and his clerical collar

Father Paul Abernathy, chief executive officer of the Neighborhood Resilience Project and pastor of St. Moses the Black Orthodox Church in the Hill District. (Photo by Jay Manning/PublicSource)

At a recent press briefing on vaccine equity, state health officials suggested faith community partners would play a crucial role in overcoming these barriers.

Rev. Dr. B. De Neice Welch, senior pastor of Bidwell Presbyterian Church, said initially that she and many others in the church had decided against taking the vaccine. There were just too many reasons to be wary.

“We as a community could not trust the information coming from our national elected officials, nor did we trust the information circulating in the streets,” she said during the briefing.

After reading through health department data and consulting with a physician in their congregation, they changed their minds. Now they’re addressing fear with truth.

In Abernathy’s view, overcoming barriers to the vaccine is acting “in the best tradition” of his faith, a mission taken up by leaders of several Black and multiethnic faith communities in the Pittsburgh area.

“Because of failed or oppressive systems,” Abernathy said, “many times the church was the only place where African Americans really came together to address the challenges in the community.”

Step 1: ‘Education is everything’

Saving lives through vaccination won’t work without access to reliable information.

For Rev. Dr. Brenda J. Gregg, senior pastor of Destiny of Faith Church on the North Side, providing that came naturally.  

Before entering the ministry, Gregg spent 38 years in health care. Once a pastor, she noticed how often people in her congregation were coming to her with questions about their health. In response, she helped create the Faith-Based Health Collaborative, a network of church leaders and congregations committed to health ministry.

When questions about COVID-19 vaccines arose, Gregg knew what she had to do. She had guided people through other crises, including the HIV epidemic, and people’s suspicions here seemed similar.

“Education is everything,” she said. “We needed to get information out to our congregants and to the neighborhoods.”

Rev. Brenda J. Gregg stands in front of her house on a snowy day.

Rev. Dr. Brenda J. Gregg mobilized her networks through the Faith-Based Health Collaborative to share information in the era of COVID. (Photo by Jay Manning/PublicSource)

As an emergency medical physician in Pittsburgh and senior pastor at Emmanuel Baptist Church in Rankin, Rev. Dr. Christoper Conti is a bridge between two worlds.

He estimates that he and his spouse, who is also a physician, have done 10 to 15 vaccine-specific Zoom conferences through different houses of worship and community-based organizations. The goal has been to educate, not indoctrinate. 

“If someone were to ask my opinion about the vaccine as an individual, I would tell them that it’s a no brainer to get vaccinated,” he said. But, speaking in a professional capacity, his role is different. “As a health professional and a pastor...my job is to partner with you to give you facts.” 

The Contis assured people, for example, that approving vaccines at “warp speed” meant increasing funding and attention within the global scientific community, not cutting corners, and that the vaccine doesn’t alter or manipulate your DNA.

Rev. Christopher Conti stands outside a medical clinic

Rev. Christopher Conti, a practicing medical physician and pastor, has welcomed questions from his congregation about COVID and the vaccines. (Photo by Jay Manning/PublicSource)

“There’s not a chip in the vaccine. The vaccine doesn’t cause infertility,” said Dr. Tracey Conti,  executive vice chair in the Department of Family Medicine at the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Medicine and program director for UPMC McKeesport Family Medicine Residency program.

She hopes that partnerships between churches and healthcare professionals to fight COVID can usher in longer-term commitments to at-risk communities.

“This is a point where we can pivot and say, ‘What is it that we can do to improve the outcomes of the populations that we serve?’” she said. 

The same principles of community trust grounded Abernathy’s response at the Neighborhood Resilience Project [NRP]. 

As a nonprofit specializing in trauma-informed community development, the NRP regularly responds to community needs in moments of crisis, including persistent issues like gun violence. “We thought, ‘What if we adapted some of our work around gun violence and applied it to COVID?’” Abernathy said.

With that, the Community Health Deputies initiative was born. 

Working with the University of Pittsburgh, the NRP trained members of underserved communities to bring resources to their neighbors, register people for clinical vaccine trials and, most recently, serve as “living, breathing, walking ambassadors of the vaccine.”

Much of the deputies’ work has been time-consuming and high-risk. Even before they were vaccinated, for example, the deputies were going door to door to reach people without regular phone or internet access.

To achieve vaccine equity, Abernathy said communities that have been traumatized and marginalized needed to hear about their options from people they identify with and trust. 

“We have to realize how important it is to deputize people from the community in the fight,” Abernathy said.

Step 2: Shots in arms

Curtis characterizes his vaccine outreach efforts at Mount Ararat as an invitation to information. He raises questions, shares data and lets “faith seek its understanding.” 

But information is only the first step.

“The end result is needle in arm,” he said.

Many faith leaders want their organizations to be vaccine distribution sites. For now, they’re trying to connect vulnerable populations to vaccine opportunities.

“Anything that I get in my mailbox about who’s doing what — ‘There’s some vaccines leftover. They are going to do it on Sunday.’ — we give that out to our church,” Gregg said.

Dr. Steven Evans, clinical professor of surgery and director of community engagement in the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine’s Department of Surgery, emphasized the importance of partnerships. “We don’t want to see disparities in access to vaccines,” he said. “So we’re really very conscious about how we’re trying to make vaccines available to everyone.”

Dr. Tracey Conti stands outside of UPMC Community Care

Dr. Tracey Conti outside the Latterman Family Health Center in McKeesport. (Photo by Jay Manning/PublicSource)

For church leaders, acting as that bridge is not easy. 

“This has been a word of mouth kind of thing,” Curtis said. “It’s been a social media platform thing. It’s been email blasts. It’s been talking over the microphone on weekends for services. It’s been calling members who I know are in the category to qualify for the vaccine and saying, ‘I need you to go on and sign up because 2,000 vaccines are coming in this week.’”

The effort feels like a jointly social and spiritual responsibility.

“In our community, the churches have always been central and a place for outreach,” Tracey Conti said. “That’s one of the church’s missions: to make sure that we’re caring for the community that we serve.”

Chris Hedlin is PublicSource’s faith and religion reporter. She can be reached at chris@publicsource.org.

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